Sunday, 30 August 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Book of Spies (NBA)

Silly, but entertaining, and with a very interesting plot hook. Which isn't something I was sure I was going to be able to say about Gayle Lynds' The Book of Spies. I picked it up mainly to data mine it for Night's Black Agents, and it's perfectly serviceable in that role. If you happen to be a Director and want some inspiration for your campaign, this is a good place to look for it, as it plays out much as you'd want a good RPG to: lots of travel to exotic locations, fun combat moments, and engaging villains. Just don't expect all of it to make sense.

The central hook is what lured me in, and that didn't disappoint. Rare book curator Eva Blake is drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the mysterious Library of Gold, once owned by Russian despot Ivan the Terrible, now thought lost to history. Eva's dead husband was a foremost expert on the mysterious library, but it seems his death isn't as kosher as first thought; not only is he alive, he's now the head librarian. But what's the connection between this most secretive of book clubs and Islamic terrorism?

Things I didn't like: oh, brother, it's a gimmick book. You know the type: Mysterious Clues have been left by Eva's long lost husband that, if pieced together, will lead to the Library itself. Mysterious clues like the tattoo on his head, or the ancient Latin code kept secret in Rome, or the annotations in the main McGuffin, Ivan's fabled Book of Spies. Piece together the picture formed by the moles on Washington's buttcheecks, as revealed to the righteous in the fabled naked Washington portrait painted by his secret lover, Andrew Jackson, and you too will receive a Wally Walrus decoder ring of your very own. I have so little patience for that kind of thing. It reminds me irresistibly of Calvin and Hobbes'  G.R.O.S.S., and while I enjoy that stuff when a kid and his stuffed tiger do it, I find I have less patience for it when grown adults try the same thing.

Plus, the clues can only be pieced together by his wife, which means that if his wife hadn't been conveniently dragged into the plot, nobody would have the slightest idea what the hell's going on. Added to that, there's no convincing reason why he should leave behind the clues he does, beyond a quick handwave, and there's one particular clue that, as far as I can see, he had absolutely no business knowing about. Poor plotting drives me mental.

There is a Mysterious Assassin With a Conscience. Kinda like a Hooker with a Heart of Gold, these fabled beasts only appear when the writer's up shit creek without a paddle. Naturally the main villain lies to the MAWC to get him to go after the book's heroes, and naturally the MAWC ends up turning against the main villain because the heroes seem so nice and righteous. Sweet jumping jellybeans, Batman, why the hell didn't you hire one of those assassins who don't have a conscience? Surely there are one or two of them left?

The plot is introduced when one of the conspirators has doubts, and meets with his old CIA buddy in a D.C. public park. He literally has just enough time to say, 'important clue concerning the nature of the McGuffin' before a sniper takes him out. I think the last time I saw that gag, Sax Rohmer was writing it. Life must get very frustrating for those poor snipers, who have to wait just long enough for the victim to say something significant before they can blow the victim's brains out.

So I don't recommend this book for its plot. You could drive a sixteen wheeler through the damn thing. No, I recommend it because of its McGuffin, the fabled Library of Gold, and the mysterious power brokers who own it. That whole set-up could be stolen wholesale by a Night's Black Agents Director. All you have to do is put Dracula in charge of the Library, and you're golden.

Plus, Lynds clearly seems at her most comfortable when talking about the Library, and other ancient sites. It's when her prose starts to come alive, and the character seem at their most human. Even the villains seem interesting, once they get to the Library and start sipping the brandy. Entire scenes could be taken from this book and transplanted into your campaign, and there's a very useful appendix where Lynds talks about the history behind the myth.

So on the whole, a qualified recommendation. It's worth bearing in mind that I did finish it, in spite of my vehement dislike of its structure and plotting. It's the kind of book you can probably devour in a few hours, or a long plane journey. In fact, it's exactly the sort of book you're likely to find in an airport newsagents, so if you should spot it, and it's going cheap, by all means give it a shot. Just don't expect too much from it beyod a few rollicking action scenes and a McGuffin so good, it really ought to have been in a better book.


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